The Importance of Everyday Memories

Recalling big events like weddings and graduations can be joyous. But memories of even the most mundane moments in our lives can bring us happiness, research shows.

“We generally do not think about today’s ordinary moments as experiences that are worthy of being rediscovered in the future. However, our studies show that we are often wrong: What is ordinary now actually becomes more extraordinary in the future — and more extraordinary than we might expect,” explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Ting Zhang of Harvard Business School.

The findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

Earlier research has shown that people consistently make errors in trying to predict how much they will remember about an experience later on.

The investigators theorized that these “prediction errors” indicate why we are eager to document the special moments in our lives through pictures, journals and mementos but overlook documenting more mundane moments like conversations with friends.

In one study, the researchers asked 135 college students to create “time capsules” at the beginning of the summer; they wrote about a range of different experiences they recently had, including the last social event they attended, a recent conversation, three songs they were listening to, and an excerpt from a final paper they had written.

The students were asked to predict how curious and surprised they would be to read about these events later on, and how meaningful they would think they were. The students “opened” the time capsules three months after the events and at the beginning of the following school year.

The result: the participants found that they had significantly underestimated their curiosity and interest in the events. These findings were true in a second online study as well.

The research suggests that undervaluing mundane events may actually lead us to omit what could be enjoyable rediscoveries.

“People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even though those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment,” says Zhang. “The studies highlight the importance of not taking the present for granted and documenting the mundane moments of daily life to give our future selves the joy of rediscovering them.”

This doesn’t mean that we should start documenting everything we do in order to maximize pleasure, however.

It’s important to stay in the present. In other words, focus on enjoying your meal. Don’t take a picture of it and post it on Facebook!